Ecotourism: Hope or illusion?

Sustainable tourism brings people to the places it wants to protect. Can this paradox work, or would it be better just to leave nature alone?
A tourist in the Tenorio Volcano National Park in Costa Rica. With more than 2 million visitors in .../ Credits: Reuters
Protests had been going on for months, but on June 5, 2009, violence erupted, leaving 33 dead. Indian activists and Peruvian police forces clashed over government plans to ease economic development in Peru’s Amazon forest.

It took a special UN envoy and government concessions to deescalate the situation. Peru’s government backtracked from its decision to exploit the Amazon region’s rich natural resources. But Peru needs money. In 2004, over half of Peru’s population was poor, according to World Bank standards.

An alternative model for economic development, and one that could work for Peru, is on display in Costa Rica. The country, a world leader in ecotourism, decided early to preserve its natural beauty and cash in on tourists rather than on tropical hardwoods or oil.

Looking at the figures, it has been a lucrative choice for Costa Rica. The number of foreign visitors has grown from some 330,000 in 1988 to more than two million in 2008, earning the country some 2.2 billion dollars just last year. And revenues from ecotourism are relatively high. In 2007, the average tourist spent one thousand dollars, according to the Costa Rican Tourism Institute.

However, the success of ecotourism in Costa Rica and elsewhere is also its biggest problem. Criticism comes from many different, and sometimes even opposing, points of view.

Searching for the unspoiled

Ole Kamuaro, chairman of the Kenyan Tourism Trust Fund, complains that sustainable or environmentally friendly tourism is often just mass tourism in disguise. Protecting the land for tourists, he says, simply means taking it away from local communities, thus destroying their traditional livelihoods.

Masai nomads lost some of their best land to national parks and conservation projects in East Africa. Profits, however, went elsewhere: to Kenya’s more developed regions or abroad. “While ecotourism sounds comparatively benign, one of its most serious impacts is usurpation of ’virgin’ territories, which are then packaged as green,” says Kamuaro.

To Kamuaro, the adventurous ecotourist in search of authentic places is the harbinger of social and environmental degradation. In search of the unspoiled, the ecotourist is the first to spoil the land.

Another aspect of ecotourism that stains its balance sheets is air travel. Guests from well-off industrialized countries usually fly in to an eco-lodge located in some remote region of the third world. Wouldn’t the world be better off if we all just stayed at home?

Not quite so, says Costa Christ, senior director for ecotourism at Conservation International, a U.S.-based NGO. “If we could magically stop all air travel tomorrow, far from saving the Earth, we would unleash a global conservation crisis,” he writes in his blog, ”Beyond Green Travel.”

Without tourist dollars, the famous Serengeti game park would soon be covered with human settlements, he argues. And Brazil’s massive Pantanal wetlands would turn into a cattle-rearing hotspot. The challenge, Christ says, is not how to stop travel, but how to get it right.

Harry Bateman is trying to get it right. The South African runs TerraPi, a conservation and ecotourism project bordering on the Baviaanskloof Mega-Reserve. When he bought the 10,000 hectare-farm, the land was exhausted from industrialized farming practices, and black wattle, an alien plant, was overrunning local vegetation.

Together with partners such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, Bateman set up several conservation projects to restore, or “heal” the land, as he puts it. But conservation doesn’t bring in money, so Bateman decided to establish an ecotourism company as well. Simply leaving the land alone is no longer an option.

“I wish we had that luxury, but we have already interfered. If we leave it [the environment] now it will change irrevocably. If we don’t manage the problem we have created it will alter what we get from it.”

Bateman’s land, for example, functions as a catchment area, providing water for millions of people and huge swaths of farmland. Tourism, he says, is the only way for him to ensure these environmental services.

“If you want to travel to South Africa, do something good in return. Buy less junk, save more money for trees, and travel if you like, just don’t become another paralyzed citizen of the planet. Do something,” he says.

Such action doesn’t have to lead to bloodshed. Ecotourism shows that there is an alternative between the two extremes of exploiting natural resources, such as wood or oil, and economic standstill. Preserving the last pristine spots on Earth is important. But with more than six billion people populating the Earth, fencing out people is rarely an option. 

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